A textile town reinvents itself as NASCAR's mecca

In just over a decade, the residents of Mooresville, N.C., have rebuilt a dying town into an empire of car racing

What Nashville is to country music and Hollywood is to movie -making, Mooresville is to NASCAR racing.

This is definitely not Talladega or Daytona, where thousands of fans congregate to watch this thunderous sport. But when race day's over, this Piedmont town's labyrinthine industrial parks overflow with gleaming tractor-trailers and bleary-eyed pit crews, tuning and preening their cars for the next weekend's go-arounds.

Yet, just a decade ago, this mecca of US motorsports was on the road to nowhere.

Instead of polishing chrome and tuning carburetors, thousands of people here worked in the textile mills, stitching deep-blue denim for jeans.

The rise of NASCAR comes as Mooresville, like dozens of mill towns across the South, has come unstitched under the weight of Asian imports. Just last week, for instance, Levi Strauss last week announced the closure of six US jeans plants. Yet, while many communities have struggled to sew together a new future, the transformation of Mooresville from a dying textile town to "Race City, USA," is a parable of a how the defunct manufacturing centers of today can become the boom towns of tomorrow.

There's nary a mill job left here. Some 60 race shops have pulled into town in the past six years, anchored around what's affectionately known as the "Garage-majal," the imposing chrome-and-glass headquarters of the Dale Earnhardt dynasty.

The growth from 9,000 to 22,000 residents is due almost entirely to NASCAR.

"Motor sports is now the bread and butter," says Breon Klopp, the owner of 5 Off 5 On, a new pit crew school on Gasoline Alley. "Without it, Mooresville wouldn't have seen even half the growth it has."

Today, over half the town works in some capacity for NASCAR, whether as mechanics, engineers, pit crews, or for a burgeoning cottage industry of fuel and aerodynamics experts, that is hiring everyone from dirt-track racers to ex-NASA engineers. The region's formerly biggest employer, the Burlington Mills plant, is now being converted into a giant garage.

"There's no other place to go, if you want to do this for a living," says Joe Pirry, a mechanic from Swansey, Mass., who works for NASCAR star Kenny Wallace.

Mooresville is no stranger to the track. In this region, car-crazy adolescents grew up hammering on cars. Pictures from the '30s show jaunty boys with pomaded hair from towns with no zip codes, leaning out of souped-up Fords. Racing every Sunday for decades, drawling drivers grow into legends. Indeed, when old-school racer Dale Earnhardt Sr. perished last year, it was as though a crown prince had died, plunging a whole region into mourning.

Mooresville is home to many top NASCAR drivers, many of whom grew up here in the Appalachian foothills. Jeff Gordon just moved back here, and NASCAR's new hotshot driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., now runs his dad's shop.

"It's no surprise to see the Jarretts or the Earnhardts or the Wallaces at the Texas Steakhouse," says Mr. Klopp. "These guys are legends out in the world, but nobody thinks twice about it around here."

For mechanics, the town's location is ideal. It's a quiet retreat from the thunder of the races, but it's within a day's drive of all the big Southern stock-car tracks.

Mechanic Patrick Bernall's love affair with stock cars came on like a clutch being popped. Entranced after seeing a stock-car race in Las Vegas three years ago, Mr. Bernall, a goateed Coloradan, left his hometown. His dream? To become a "wall-jumper": one of the seven pit-crew members who, in a kind of gasoline-soaked ballet, pour 22 gallons of fuel and change four tires in 15 seconds.

Built like a linebacker – and just as quick – his first gig was this year's Daytona 500. "It's like the first game of football you ever play is the Superbowl," he says.

Other pit mechanics travel from all over the country to "pit" on the weekends and then return to sales or service jobs during the week. The majority burn out as fast as a set of tires at the Coca-Cola 600. But their sponsorship-dependent teams, too, have sometimes struggled to complete the season in times of recession.

"The economy has hit ... real hard, there are teams shutting down who can't get sponsors, and a lot of crew chiefs are out of work," says Deb Williams, the editor of Winston Cup Scene, which covers NASCAR out of Charlotte.

Still, the influx of gearheads, hotshots, and drag racers continues into Race City. In June, the NASCAR Technical Institute is slated to open. Next year, one of the country's largest wind tunnels will open here. The hotels and restaurants and lounges are full of NASCAR memorabilia; at some, you can even buy some used racing tires for $10. Even the sandwich wax papers are shaped as checkered flags.

The momentum seems unstoppable. Take the case of the Bud Moore. The legendary driver promised a year ago that his team would "never leave" South Carolina.

Last week, the Moore team arrived at its new garage in Mooresville.

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